Helping Children Explore Rules

No running in the house. Look both ways before crossing the street. Treat others with respect. These common family rules shape our children’s lives. Sometimes they follow them without question. But more often they want to know why they should heed a particular rule, especially if it gets in the way of something they would rather do.

Children’s interest in debating rules can fuel their spiritual development. Understanding how rules are developed and what they can accomplish supports ethical responsibility. And exploring the contextual nature of rules can help kids recognize when a rule might be discriminatory rather than supportive of the common good.

As parents and caregivers, we can encourage children to question social and family rules. We can pose the questions, Why do rules exist? and Why do we follow rules?, and then explore various ways of answering these queries together.

Educators suggest using a three-part approach to these inquiries. The first part involves adult leadership. Parents and caregivers identify specific rules and wonder aloud about the reasons for those rules. They model a process of questioning that includes noticing and asking ‘why?’. They also suggest possible reasons for the rules they name. For example, you might observe that ‘no phones at the table’ is a family rule, wonder why your family has this rule when others do not, and share some reasons (making space for family check-ins, taking a tech break, preventing damage from an overturned glass) that you think make the rule a good idea.

The second part involves teamwork. Adults and children work together to identify more rules and the reasons (both helpful and problematic) that might explain them. School rules about hairstyles and uniforms, for example, may be interpreted as both promoting equity and discriminating based on gender, race, ethnicity, or religion. Think together about who benefits when a rule is followed and who repeatedly seems to violate a rule just by being themselves. Reflect as well on why each of you are comfortable with some rules and uncomfortable with others. Ask: Why do you like following this rule? Why do you resist following that rule?

The third part is child-led. Encourage children to contribute to your family’s list of rules. Invite them to think about some of the goals they have for your life together, such as mutual respect, being good listeners, and supporting one another. Suggest that they come up with some rules that will help all family members achieve those goals. Test out their ideas to see if they are helpful or need revision. For example, a child might propose a ‘raise your hand to talk at the table’ rule and then realize that transferring this requirement from a school setting to home is awkward and doesn’t promote better listening. They might then revise the rule to ‘give everyone a turn to talk’ and brainstorm ways to live out this more general expectation.

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